Rich Man’s Blues
Ted Thompson’s Debut Novel Features A 1 Percenter As Its Hero
It’s brave enough for a first-time novelist to invade Cheever territory, but it takes real moxie to make your hero one of the rich people love to despise.
Ted Thompson’s debut novel, The Land of Steady Habits, set in Connecticut, takes its title from one of the state’s four nicknames. Connecticut is also the Constitution State and the Provisions State, but it was “Nutmeg State” that came to mind when I saw that Thompson’s protagonist is a middle-aged man in a wealthy suburb on the Metro-North commuter rail line. According to tradition, the typical Yankee peddler was thought to be so shrewd that he could carve and sell counterfeit nutmegs. I wondered if Thompson, himself a Connecticut native, would serve up a real place or the wooden Nutmeg State that people love to hate, the land of well-heeled but soulless commuters. It stands to reason that nowadays, to do the latter would be shrewd indeed.
I say that not because people are particularly interested in Connecticut but because they are acutely interested in telling themselves a certain story about the rich. Make that a subset of the rich: In theory, the epithet “1 percenter” refers to net worth, but in practice it’s more important what you made the money doing. The downside of being a 1 percenter is that the 99 percenters think you’re dead inside, that your marriage is a sham, that your children are spoiled and destined for expensive rehab in the desert, that even your dog hates you, and that you can’t dance. People tend to believe these things without encouragement, but will still buy any book and see any movie that reassures them that what looks, swims, and quacks like a lazy stereotype is, quite to the contrary, a self-evident truth.
Thoreau warned that men are “employed … laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.” Ted Thompson is concerned with the “if not before,” which is to say the midlife crisis. He owes less to Walden than to the film American Beauty (1999), which taught a generation that the way to redeem your life of quiet desperation is to smoke weed with a weird teenage neighbor—which is exactly what Thompson’s hero, Anders, is doing at the beginning of The Land of Steady Habits. That this occurs at a holiday party filled with people Anders loathes, plus his ex-wife and her new lover, means that Anders’s inappropriate outburst will only heighten our sense that we’ve been here many times before.
But then Thompson pulls the rug out from under that sense. The comic nature of the stiff suburban holiday party evaporates when the teen, Charlie, suffers an overdose of Klonipin, PCP-laced pot, and alcohol. The fact that Charlie is indulging in drugs potent enough to put him in an ambulance suggests that he may be genuinely troubled and not merely a wise-beyond-his-years foil for Anders’s stock manchild. Thus imbued with an unexpected gravity, the book flashes back to Anders’s college days, then follows Anders back up to his present. We see Anders defy his father, a Southern judge, by refusing law school in favor of becoming a scholarship student at Bowdoin. We watch him fall in love with his roommate Donny’s girlfriend, Helene, and ultimately marry her.
Anders’s courtship of Helene is patiently and persuasively rendered, and it goes a long way toward reminding the reader that financial success does not preclude access to the full panoply of human emotions. But Thompson is not about to let Anders off that easily. And so the author demonstrates how Anders’s rise at Springer Financial was propelled, if not by rapaciousness, then certainly by moral compromise. “[I]f some little savings and loan in Middle America was going to lose its shirt,” Anders thinks during one deal, “too bad.” Subtle this is not, but most readers will appreciate the polemical force of Thompson’s characterization. He does stop short of making Anders just another Wall Street moustache-twirler. Anders is for the most part an ordinary man, eager to support a family and to earn his colleagues’ respect.
“For the most part,” that is, because a man in his position doesn’t usually divorce his wife, quit his high-paying job, stop paying the mortgage, and decamp to a shabby condo. A man in his position doesn’t usually engage in Thoreauvian stock-taking or soul-searching. Though Anders can come across as callous and self-indulgent—he asks Helene for a divorce just as they’re about to celebrate a son’s college graduation—he is also thoughtful, idealistic, and nonconformist to a degree that may grate on those who prefer their financiers evil and chastened. In fact, the only thing Anders has in common with the Rich White Guy of popular mythology is his massively screwed-up son, Preston, a Phish-following prodigal who returns home on a cloud of exhaust fumes and marijuana smoke.
Anders’s ex-wife, Helene, a breast cancer survivor, is a deftly drawn character, and when she embarks on an affair with her college boyfriend, it feels plausible and not like a play for narrative symmetry. That said, the actual stars of Thompson’s book are the men (or boys), Anders, Preston, and Charlie. Their lives are falling apart, but they intersect in interesting, tragic, and instructive ways. Anders muses that his son Preston had “no say” in “virtually any of the institutions his parents continually reminded him he should be grateful for attending.” It’s as though Thompson believes that the pressure to achieve and the lack of opportunity to achieve are liable to yield the same results—failure and resentment. This is a pretty unusual approach to what today is commonly called “white privilege.”
Thompson has a great gift for storytelling, and this is that rare book that would translate well to the big screen but doesn’t seem to have been written with the movies in mind. The Land of Steady Habits is a success in most of the important ways. It is entertaining. It is written in impeccable, albeit not particularly memorable, prose. Its characters feel like real people. Thompson has taken very well-worn territory—the footprints of Cheever and Yates are everywhere in evidence—and produced something that never feels like a retread. But the book has one flaw that should serve as a warning or spur to other first-time writers: It lacks higher-order imagination. It succeeds within its own parameters, but it never administers the maximum-voltage jolt of genuine surprise.
No, Anders is not a caricature, and given current attitudes toward wealth, that is a small miracle. Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that Thompson imagined a banker’s midlife crisis by imagining how a creative type—i.e., Thompson himself—would feel about a life “wasted” as a banker. It is well that Thompson established, in flashback, Anders’s rebellious streak. What he neglected to explain is how or why a young rebel like Anders might land in finance to begin with. (Recall that Anders made a great show of rejecting law.) Thompson may not have an answer, just as most people couldn’t imagine a reason other than greed or status anxiety why anyone would work in finance. Yet an answer, or even a speculation, would have added insight and originality to this terrific but risk-averse debut.